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Learning a foreign language is about more than getting by abroad

Blog • Modern languagesEducation • Professor Neil Kenny FBA, British Academy lead Fellow for languages

It’s the time of year when many people dust off rusty school French or reach for the Spanish phrasebook to help them on a summer holiday.

The Office of National Statistics reported recently that Britons take far more foreign holidays than they did twenty years ago -  but the nation’s language skills have not kept pace with this increase.

Recent analysis shows a significant fall in the number of UCAS applications to study languages at UK universities, reflecting a longstanding trend. At the same time, the number of entries for GCSE French, German and Spanish has declined, despite the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which makes a language compulsory. And while the decline in students taking the main European languages at A-level seems to have slowed, the number has descended to levels lower than we might wish.

As the national body for the humanities and social sciences, the British Academy has long been concerned about the decline in language learning throughout the education system. We have working to with government, higher education institutions and students to demonstrate how the benefits of learning a language go far beyond the technical ability to speak it.

Languages are a key indicator of how willing and prepared we are to operate in an increasingly interconnected, multilingual and multicultural world. They are essential for trade, business and the economy, security, diplomacy and soft power, inter-cultural understanding and social cohesion.

The ability to speak a foreign language is a key element in the formation of relationships, mutual understanding, trust and networks that facilitate interaction and cooperation across borders and societies. These skills are vital to the UK’s future in a Brexit climate, as we look to strengthen connections with countries across the globe and forge new ones within Europe.

But the case for being able to communicate in a foreign language often struggles to be taken seriously in a world in which English is seen as globally dominant. The British Academy’s work has shown that the importance and value of languages may not have been properly recognised by government or potential students.

In a study of the need for languages in diplomacy and security, we found that government departments and agencies acknowledged that language skills could help staff to meet their objectives, but acquiring these skills was not always a priority. Our inquiry called for the establishment of clear polices, strong leadership and significant incentives to support language learning across the diplomatic, security and intelligence services.

Our Born Global research with employers found that 71% of senior UK business figures with skills in more than one language said that their languages skills had given them a competitive edge in applying for jobs. More widely, businesses need the qualities that language graduates bring to the workforce, as well as their linguistic talents. Employers seek recruits with an international outlook, a global mindset and cultural intelligence. The skills of analysis, resilience, the ability to communicate sensitively and the maturity and independence which come from studying or working abroad are also in demand. It is perhaps due to this broad set of skills that foreign language graduates tend to achieve higher salary levels five years after graduation, according to recent data.

We also found that employers value individuals who bring skills in both a language and another specialism, such as business or engineering. The increase in the number of students who take a language course alongside, or as part of, their degree, in a growing range of languages including Chinese and Korean, is therefore an encouraging trend which isn’t covered by UCAS statistics.

There is a growing body of evidence that studying languages opens doors to a wide range of future careers, as well as equipping people with fluency in another language. The British Academy is working to add to this through the first ever study of the value of arts, humanities and social sciences degrees, due to be published in the autumn. Research with students, recent graduates and a range of employers will help us better understand what skills are developed through studying degrees such as languages, and the contribution these graduates make to our economy and cultural life.

In the current climate, languages can no longer be regarded as an optional extra. There have been some improvements in language provision in primary schools, giving more young people the opportunity to encounter a foreign language in their formative years. But it remains to be seen whether this next generation will reverse our linguistic decline.

The British Academy is the UK's national body for the humanities and social sciences – the study of peoples, cultures and societies, past, present and future. For more information, visit www.britishacademy.ac.uk or follow us @britac_news.

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